[This article was written for a set of the complete Brahms Symphonies, performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, issued as Columbia D3M 31636 in 1972. It was great fun to write and I remember learning a great deal as I worked on it. However, I hope not too many people got to read it, as the performances were not very good and the sound quality of the recordings was surprisingly poor.]

The symphony, at one time, was just one of several common types of composition for orchestra. Mozart could dash off such a work, with no particular self-consciousness, at the age of eight. However, through the works of such composers as Haydn and Mozart, the symphony developed stature as the most “serious” of all orchestral forms, and the writing of such a work became an undertaking of great magnitude, not to be entered into lightly.

Even Beethoven, hardly a man to be easily intimidated, did not attempt the production of a symphony until he had reached the age of 29, at which time he had already produced quantities of large-scale piano and chamber works and a number of orchestral works, including the first two Piano Concertos. Beethoven’s nine Symphonies, along with those of such composers as Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann–all of them highly esteemed by Brahms–further enhanced the prestige of the form.

Much has been made of Johannes Brahms’s long reluctance to write a symphony. His First was not completed until September 1876, when the composer was 43 years old. However, as most composers have acknowledged, writing for the orchestra is a tricky business, calling for a great deal of practical experience. Nearly all successful writers of music for orchestra have had such experience, playing in orchestras or conducting.

But let us look at Brahms’s background. His father was an orchestral bassist, and wished his son to follow his lead, at least to the extent of playing some instrument with which he could earn a living as a member of an orchestra. The young Brahms, however, was attracted to the piano. By the time he was 10 years old, his proficiency at the instrument was so marked that only the stubborn opposition of his teacher O.F.W. Cossel saved the boy from being exhibited as a prodigy on a tour of the United States. Cossel, whose memory deserves our respect, insisted that the talented pupil be passed on to his own teacher Eduard Marxson, who trained Brahms both in piano and in composition.

One can hardly complain of Marxson’s efforts. Even the first published compositions of Brahms, products of his late teens, display prodigious command of large-scale musical forms. But Brahms never had the chance to work with an orchestra, either as member or conductor, or to hear compositions of his own played by a student orchestra, as might have occurred at a large conservatory. Contrast this with the experience of Beethoven, who was leading orchestral rehearsals at the age of 12!

Strictness in musical form was going into decline as Brahms was growing into manhood. Symphonies and sonatas were largely being replaced by fantasias and tone poems. In terms of form, at least, Brahms remained a musical conservative throughout his life. (This is not always true of other aspects of his music, especially rhythm.) And it is easy to understand how a musician with Brahms’s reverence for the accomplishments of the great classical masters would feel reluctant to compose a symphony. The sense of responsibility must have been awesome. Brahms was particularly inhibited by the memory of Beethoven. In response to an inquiry about the possibility of his writing a symphony, he wrote of Beethoven, “You don’t know what it feels to be dogged by that giant.”

Only gradually did Brahms work his way into composing for orchestra. We don’t know the whole story, since Brahms ruthlessly destroyed most of his sketches and even completed works that eventually did not meet with his approval. Doubtless there were some early experiments. His first published work for orchestra was the Serenade in D Major, Op. 11, originally composed for nine instruments and only later expanded into its full scoring. It was written in 1858-59, and was promptly followed by a second, the Serenade in A Major, Op. 16, scored for small orchestra without violins.

During this period, Brahms began work on what was intended to be his first symphony, scoring it for two pianos. Composition was begun in 1853. By the following year at least three movements were completed, and the finale was done by 1856. Eventually, however, Brahms discarded one movement (later to be used in his German Requiem) and recast the remaining three as his Piano Concerto No. 1, in D Minor, Op. 15. The failure of this work at its first performances in 1859 put an end, for the time, to Brahms’s experiments in writing for orchestra.

Three years later, in 1862, Brahms wrote a first movement for a symphony. We do not know that this was actually the first movement of the First Symphony, but it might have been. We do know that three movements of a symphony, in C Minor, were in existence by 1863, and it seems fairly certain that this was, indeed, the First Symphony. Brahms quoted a passage from the fourth movement in a letter written in 1868, and the work was probably complete in sketch form by then. In the meantime, Brahms was gaining experience in orchestration by writing music for vocal soloists and chorus with orchestra, including the German Requiem and the Alto Rhapsody. Still, he bided his time.

In 1873, Brahms published his Variations on a Theme of Haydn. The work was first written for two pianos, and was then orchestrated. The two scores were published simultaneously, perhaps revealing Brahms’s continued insecurity in regard to orchestral scoring. But the performances convinced him, and the critics as well, that he had mastered the use of the full orchestra.

Work on the First Symphony resumed, although the manuscript was not finished until September 1876. When Brahms’s friends and colleagues learned that he had, at last, completed a symphony to his own satisfaction, he was deluged with requests for performances and publication rights. But with his typical caution, Brahms withheld publication for some time. Moreover, although several famous conductors would have been pleased to conduct the premiere, Brahms gave it to his friend Otto Dessoff, who had an excellent orchestra in the small city of Karlsruhe.

During the rehearsals preceding the performance (on November 4, 1876), Brahms continued to make revisions in the score. After the premiere, which achieved a respectable but not overwhelming success, Brahms himself took the work on tour, conducting it in Mannheim, Munich, and Vienna, and presumably testing and revising his orchestration all the while.

The First Symphony is certainly a work that justifies its author’s elaborate preparations. It is a large-scale, passionate work, full of drama and contrast, yet marvelously proportioned and constructed. The first and last movements are preceded by lengthy slow introductions (the only ones in any of Brahms’s symphonies), and there are many other symmetrical and unifying features, including a motif of descending thirds that is first heard in the introduction to the first movement and returns in several other places.

At last, in the First Symphony, Brahms was able to make his peace with the ghost of Beethoven, both by emulation and by contrast. The work does have similarities to Beethoven’s writing–not only the dramatic agitation whipped up at some moments, but even the main theme of the last movement, which bears some resemblance to the main theme of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth. (Brahms freely acknowledged the resemblance. “Any ass can notice that,” he said.) However, Brahms makes no attempt to imitate Beethoven’s concentrated development of motifs. Instead, he builds his work around the rhapsodic expansion of motifs, building themes outward from tiny motifs, rather than beginning with themes themselves and contracting them into motifs, as Beethoven had so often done.

Brahms’s work also reflects the changes in musical style since the time of Beethoven. His harmony is, of course, more advanced; his orchestra is larger; his rhythms are freer. These characteristics were to remain true of his future symphonies. The First symphony suffered the inevitable comparisons with Beethoven’s works (Hans von Bulow even dubbing it “the Tenth,” to Brahms’s embarrassment), but such comparisons were seldom made afterward.

Brahms’s First Symphony made its way to the United States as early as January of 1878, when it was performed in Boston by the Harvard Musical Association. Here it met with such blasts from the critics as:

“The Brahms C Minor Symphony sounds for the most part morbid, strained, and unnatural; much of it even ugly.”–Boston Courier

“It is mathematical music evolved with difficulty from an unimaginative brain…noisy, ungraceful, confusing and unattractive example of dry pedantry.” –Boston Gazette

Yet we may prefer to remember, instead, the pioneering spirit of conductor Carl Zerrahn, who immediately announced a second performance.

Whatever critics and audiences may have thought of the First Symphony, Brahms was satisfied that he had achieved his goals, and his reluctance to compose in symphonic form was completely overcome. The following summer, he vacationed in the Austrian village of Portschach and took many walks along the river and through the countryside. “One can surely not take more beautiful walks!” he wrote to Clara Schumann. “In the Ampezzo valley you would have been enchanted by everything–the mountains, the lakes, the flowers, the splendid road.”

Under the influence of this area, Brahms rapidly composed his Second Symphony. He was able to offer it for performance as early as December of the same year, when it was played in Vienna under the baton of the great Hans Richter. Brahms’s beloved Viennese cheered the music with such enthusiasm that the third movement had to be encored. Later performances won a string of triumphs–even in Brahms’s native Hamburg, where he had long suffered painful neglect.

Like the First Symphony, the Second is built out of its opening motifs. In the case of the Second, the opening three notes (D, C sharp, D) form a motto that recurs in every movement, and along with the first theme (heard in horns and bassoons) it generates much of the musical material of the work. In their emotional climates, though, the works are virtual opposites. Where the First Symphony is wide-ranging and pervaded by dramatic tension, the Second is relaxed, warm and even-tempered, obviously reflecting the pastoral mood of Brahms’s vacation.

Five years were to pass before Brahms returned to the symphony, but these were not years of retreat from the orchestra. The Violin Concerto was written in 1878; the Second Piano Concerto, which has been described as a “symphony for orchestra with piano,” was sketched even earlier and completed in 1881; and the Academic Festival and Tragic Overtures were finished in 1880. There is some speculation, likely but unconfirmed, that two movements of the Third Symphony also originated during this period as parts of incidental music Brahms was writing for Goethe’s Faust but never completed.

Brahms was, by this time, at the height of his power and popularity. The premiere performance was once again given in Vienna by Richter, on December 2, 1883. Brahmsians and Wagnerites both turned out to hear the new work. The former were in the majority (since, after all, not too many people are eager to pay to hear music they do not expect to like, even out of spite), and the audience’s cheers carried the day despite some antagonistic demonstrations by Wagner’s followers. Similarly, Eduard Hanslick’s laudatory review in the press was considered the definitive judgment, although the young Hugo Wolf wrote, “A single cymbal stroke of a work by Liszt expresses more intellect and emotion than all three Symphonies of Brahms and his Serenades taken together.” Brahms was amused by the young man’s exaggerations.

The Third Symphony has probably been the least performed of Brahms’s four, and it is certainly not the most accessible of these works. One suspects that many conductors overlook the work because all four movements have quiet endings, making it difficult to whip up audience enthusiasm at the conclusion. There also seem to be a number of obscure, private expressions in the music, most obviously the motif that opens the work and serves as a unifying force throughout all four movements: F, A flat, F, signifying Brahms’s personal motto, frei aber froh (“free but happy”). Brahms had chosen this motto in answer to that of his friend Joachim, frei aber einsam (“free but lonely”), and had used the three-note motif in several of his previous works.

When the Third Symphony was written, Brahms’s long friendship with Joachim had been interrupted by the composer’s having sided (somewhat inadvertently) with Joachim’s wife in their divorce proceedings. Brahms used the Third Symphony as a way of healing the breech in their friendship, giving the score to Joachim–who could hardly have been unaware of the use of the motif and who probably found other references directed personally to him–for its first performances in Berlin. Shortly after the Viennese premiere, Joachim conducted three performances in a short period of time, always to great acclaim. (When Hans von Bulow conducted the Third Symphony in Meiningen, he had to repeat the entire work on the same program.)

Anyone who remains puzzled by the emergence of the Viennese twelve-tone school and the compositional methods of Arnold Schoenberg from no apparent source might well benefit from a study of Brahms’s Second and Third Symphonies. In each, the opening measures provide musical material to be used throughout four movements. From such constructions, the Franckian cyclical forms, and the Wagnerian leitmotif, it was only a short step to a style of composition–the serial method–in which one musical idea is used as the basis of an entire work.

Brahms began work on his Fourth Symphony during the summer of 1884, in the Austrian resort town of Marzzuschlag, south of Vienna, at a particularly isolated villa, to which he returned the following summer to complete the work. He then wasted little time in bringing it to performance. After rehearsals in October with von Bulow’s orchestra in Meiningen, Brahms himself conducted the first performance there, then conducted the work in a tour of nine cities.

Again in this work, the opening motif (this time only two notes) becomes the basis of much of the music. However, it is not the unifying force found in the two earlier works; the music must have more diversity throughout because of Brahms’s unusual plan for the finale. Thus, he contrasts the bold, passionate first movement with a stricter, marchlike second movement. The third is a superbly colorful scherzo (featuring Brahms’s only use of the triangle), setting the stage for the monumental passacaglia finale. This form, a series of variations on a “ground bass” theme in the lower register, was common in the baroque era. But it had never been used in a symphony before and was not generally recognized by listeners or critics until after its introduction. Almost as if to confirm his intended act of homage to the past, Brahms took his theme, with the alteration of one note, from Bach’s Cantata No. 150, “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich.”

Two years after writing the Fourth Symphony, Brahms produced his celebrated Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, another work with symphonic features. Thereafter, his rediscovery of the solo piano and his glorious love affair with the clarinet were to occupy most of the remaining ten years of his life, and he never again wrote for orchestra. Still, despite its modest size, Brahms’s output for orchestra is a collection of surpassing richness. No amount of exposure to the Four Symphonies ever exhausts their wonders.

–Leslie Gerber

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